Friday, April 06, 2012

Yarra Valley, a Day Trip

Vines in Yarra Valley
A couple of weeks ago I was back in Melbourne for a few days, playing tour guide and driver to my aunt, who was there partially for work. it was her first time there and I was eager to show her all the things I love about the state I called home for so many years (in many ways, it still is). The weather, being Melbourne, was beautiful one minute and shockingly horrid the next, so when I woke up late one morning (we never adjusted to Melbourne time!) to find that the sky was clear, I called Bella Vedere in Yarra Valley for a table straight away, and off we went.

Oven-roasted duck
We were really lucky - this was the only day, out of the five we were there, that it stayed sunny and clear the entire day. The Yarra Valley, in case you don't already know, is a huge winemaking area in Victoria (the state of which Melbourne is capital) that is just an hour or so away from the city. From my childhood home in the eastern suburbs, it's even closer, probably about 40 minutes. When I was younger (and underage) my parents used to drive out to Yarra Valley quite a bit, and I remember going to Chateau Yering for weekend lunch and Domaine Chandon for bubbles and paté (yes, paté, that was so the canapé of the early 90s). While these places are still nice, I knew much had changed in the area and I was keen to go off that familiar route. (And if I have to go to Healesville Sanctuary again I might scream - I think I've been about 10 times, and that's way too much time spent with scary ibises that are allowed to run around freely and peck at little girls' sandwiches - another story for another day...)

Orange, olive, almond and rocket salad
I'd heard about Bella Vedere through several food-savvy friends, it was a name that I'd never heard of before last year, despite the restaurant having been open since 2008 (or 09? I forget, point is - it's been a while). Well, better late than never; a name that crops up consistently among different groups of friends has to be worth a try regardless!

Bella Rabbit
Indeed, it was everything I wanted in a winery restaurant, in fact, maybe everything I wanted in a restaurant full stop. For starters, I called at noon asking for a table at 1.30pm, which is a pretty late lunch if you ask me, but was greeted with a sunshiney "no worries at all" - a huge relief given all the rejections I'd had from restaurants closer to town. (That said, it was a Tuesday).

The gardens of Bella Vedere
The menu states proudly that it's a tribute to Stephanie Alexander, one of the heroines of Australian cooking, and whose encyclopaedic tome, A Cook's Companion, remains one of the most loved and well-used cookbooks on my bookshelf. All the dishes were simple and 'loyal' to their ingredients, really showing them off and elevating them beyond the sum of their parts through cooking. The food was down-to-earth, but by no means was it unrefined.

The desserts at Bella Vedere
Sometimes I think we go a little crazy over things like bacon, pork fat and Spam because what we're looking for, after all that low-fat, low-carb, molecular and nouveau, is that honesty and 'groundedness'. I don't mean Spam is natural, by honesty, I mean a sort of back-to-basics philosophy. The food at Bella Vedere reminded me that good food, food that satisfies on a psychological level, needn't be about junky nostalgia. It offers genuine, holistic fulfilment - it tastes great, feels good and makes you happy - and there was nothing hippy about it, it's holistic in the true sense of the word.

Bella Vedere
The Bella rabbit in particular was stellar - moist, tender and meaty, braised with apple cider, mustard and lots of herbs. When we exclaimed how delicious we thought it was, we were told simply that "it's sort of a signature here," we should have guessed as much from the name. My duck crisped beautifully in the oven, and the port sauce was a classic accompaniment done extremely well - syrupy and crystal clear, like a tea-hued gem - just looking at it was a joy. I can't say I loved the mushroom custard that came with it as much though, looking like a creme caramel, there were a few too many air bubbles and was relatively less exciting in both taste and texture. Perhaps I'm just spoilt by the chawanmushi, dainty, silky creme caramels and Cantonese steamed egg I get to eat so much in Hong Kong.

Bella Vedere
After lunch, we took a walk through the vines - the restaurant is located in Badger's Brook Winery - and while not the most picturesque (and the wines not much to write home about), being able to walk on grass, see cows and tractor marks, and generally be surrounded by all things green was already good enough for us concrete jungle-ites.

White Rabbit Brewery
Our next stop was Innocent Bystander/Giant Steps in Healesville, the poster child of sorts of all that's new and young in the Valley. I didn't really do my research properly, so while I knew it wasn't on a vineyard, I didn't quite expect it to be smack bang in Healesville town either!

White Rabbit - open for all to see
Sharing the same carpark was White Rabbit Brewery, whose open factory and attractive merchandising lured us in for a cider. Turns out the pear cider we had wasn't that great, and it left me with a weird head buzz despite it only having 4.5% alcohol content, but it was a cute place nonetheless and we got to sit out and enjoy the sun a bit more.

White Rabbit
Cider downed, we walked across to Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander and aside from wines, were greeted with an impressive array of baked goods. I couldn't resist a canele to go along with my coffee, and even bought a croissant to go - both baked items were absolutely divine.

Giant Steps and Innocent Bystander
We plonked down on the sofa (because it had been such a hard day) and enjoyed the only free, fully functional WiFi we were to experience on this entire trip in Melbourne/Victoria (I'm sorry, but Asia is just light years ahead when it comes to telecommunciations, and I know we're spoilt but I just can't help complaining!). I had read that they roasted their own coffee, but after my caffe latte here, I decided it wasn't really my type of coffee and gave my credit card a rest. It was nice that they have such a great bakery, and an atypical, industrial, cafe-like set-up, but I have to admit that I'm not quite as edgy as I wish I was. When I take a trip down into "wine country", I still expect and enjoy looking out into vineyards, and did have a little bit of a rude shock when I saw the strip mall-esque carpark. The highlight of the trip was still undoubtedly Bella Vedere.

We were going to pop into the quaint antique shop across the road, but it was already past 5pm and it had already closed, so off we went back into the city. It was a fantastic trip, and the best part was, we didn't have to wake up early, nor did we have to drive late into the night to get back into town, and yet we got to enjoy the best of the country. If I move back to Victoria one day, I don't think I'd mind living in the Yarra Valley, thankyouverymuch! (Damn, I forgot to stop at the real estate agents to see if I can afford anything out there...)

Bella Vedere
874 Maroondah Highway
Coldstream, VIC 3770
+61 3 5962 6161

White Rabbit Brewery
316 Maroondah Highway
Healesville, VIC 3777
+61 3 5962 6516

Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander
336 Maroondah Highway
Healesville, VIC 3777
+61 3 5962 6111

View e_ting in Melbourne/Victoria in a larger map


  1. You must have gotten lucky, there are regularly flocks of ibis walking around the outskirts of the town centre looking for food!

    Thanks for the heads-up on the rabbit at Bella Vedere; I've been meaning to eat there for a while, but good rabbit is something I'd like sooner than later.

  2. I really wish and hope you can afford something there so I can have somewhere to crash :)